This I believe: The Braves’ rebuild is proceeding nicely. There’s a reason observers have named this farm system the best in baseball for two years running, and soon we’ll see the first flowerings of that crop for ourselves. Sometimes, though, I wonder if the creative Braves are trying to get too creative. This is such a time.
The considered decision to allow 40-year-olds to comprise 40 percent of their rotation hasn’t worked. R.A. Dickey, who’s 42, has an ERA of 5.10, and he has been the better codger by far. Bartolo Colon, who’s 44, has an ERA of 7.78, which is the worst in baseball among qualifying pitchers. Colon’s WHIP of 1.71 is the second-worst; Dickey’s 1.62 WHIP is fourth-worst. (To be fair, the 30-year-old winter acquisition Jaime Garcia has been the Braves’ best starting pitcher.) Colon was placed on the disabled list Tuesday with a mighty convenient oblique strain.
This team might have been halfway decent with a slightly better rotation. It’s based in a terrible division. It has played a flimsy schedule. With four more wins, the Braves would be above .500 and within four games of the second wild card – and they’re due to get Freddie Freeman back in July. Not saying this would have been a playoff team. Just saying this summer might have been a bit more intriguing.
The incongruity was that the team with the best collection of young arms wound up entrusting Year 1 in SunTrust Park to some old ones. There was logic to it – not wanting to rush their kid pitchers, the Braves figured Colon and Dickey would do enough to keep the team in games – but logic presupposed that Colon and Dickey could still get people out.
More than a few clubs would have bought a year of Colon, an All-Star last season. And for a team working on parallel tracks – hoping to be semi-competitive at the big-league level to placate the STP crowd while not compromising the farm system – trying this made some semblance of sense. Trying, alas, has failed. The team’s rotation, which had the 28th-best ERA in baseball last season with Aaron Blair and Matt Wisler fizzling, again has the 28th-best ERA, only this time it’s with guys who aren’t apt to get better.
Ergo, we wonder if the Braves didn’t just run around their backhand, as the tennis set says. They thought too much. In the grand scheme, this season will have little impact on the rebuild. The draft arrives next week, the Braves holding the No. 5 pick, and we can assume John Coppolella will get something from the impending sell-off of Jaime Garcia and Brandon Phillips. (Not sure even he can reap much from Colon/Dickey.) Still, this season does send up a cautionary flare.
Coppolella and John Hart are smart men. The former is afraid of nothing; being three decades older, the latter is more circumspect. The biggest failures – and there haven’t been many – of this administration have come when daring too greatly. Shelby Miller for Swanson/Inciarte/Blair was a fabulous trade even had it flopped. (Which it hasn’t. Two of the three are already core Braves.) The Hector Oliver deal, however, was always a reach.
Not that Jose Peraza has become a star: Now on his third organization, he’s what Coppolella/Hart projected – a singles hitter who steals bases but doesn’t walk. Nor has Alex Wood been much different from what they figured: He was the National League’s pitcher of the month for May after going 5-0 with a 1.27 ERA; on May 29, he was placed on the 10-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation.
The issue wasn’t that the Braves gave up too much. It was that they were hoping the 30-year-old Olivera would do something he hadn’t done – hit in the majors – and that the Dodgers, who’d signed the Cuban defector for $62.5 million in March 2015, had decided five months later he wouldn’t do. Going by that purchase price, the Braves did get Olivera fairly cheap. After he was arrested for domestic violence they dumped his contract on San Diego and turned that mistake into Matt Kemp, who has been very good here.
The Olivera trade was a Hail Mary that might have accelerated things had it worked, the Colon/Dickey pairing a half-measure designed to buy time. Both times, the Braves had their reasons for doing as they did, and not every risk has gone unrewarded. (We say again: Jaime Garcia, Matt Kemp.) And it isn’t as if the Braves sacrificed any prospects to sign Colon and Dickey. They just spent $20.5 million, a pittance on the Uggla/B.J. Upton scale. Disappointing though this has been, it’s no systemic setback.
Still, it’s time for Sean Newcomb, who’ll turn 24 next week, to show if he can throw big-league strikes. It’s time to see what Lucas Sims, who’s 23 and who has started 115 minor-league games, can do up here. That wouldn’t be rushing things. That would simply be the Braves, who proclaim utter trust in their process, letting it proceed.